A Feature Review of
Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings
Reviewed by Sam Edgin
In the corner of a pub in small town Indiana, I met with dear friends weekly for over a year. Huddled in dusty yellow light beneath a wrinkled photocopy of a painting of a British hunting party, their red jackets faded orange, we fancied ourselves like the Inklings, that company of writers who met – also weekly – in the infamous Rabbit Room in back of the Eagle and Child in Oxford. This comparison was generous – we only talked about books, not wrote them – but little makes a young man feel more infinite than sitting in a pub with friends, laughing loud and arguing louder, empty pints scattered victoriously across the table.
Has there ever been a group other than the Inklings that has so inspired young men and women to sit regularly in pubs talking? The works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the Inklings co-founders and most well-known members, have inspired the imaginations of generations. In the search for more fuel to feed burning imaginations, their readers have looked to their friendships and those weekly meetings, and then copied them as if maybe dimly lit pubs are were all good imaginations hide. Diana Glyer thinks she has found the answer, and it’s not in the pubs, but in friendship and work within community.
C.S. Lewis once wrote in a letter that “No-one ever influenced Tolkien – you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” This Lewis Carroll reference captures the characteristic bluntness of Lewis, and plodding heart that Tolkien put into his books. But Glyer uses the name of Carroll’s mythical beast as the title of her book: Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. Adapted from The Company They Keep, which was the result of twenty-plus years of Glyer’s scholarly research into the friendships between the Inklings, Bandersnatch is meant to be more accessible to readers. In chapter illustrations by James A. Owen, the Bandersnatch lurks behind the members of the Inklings. Like in Carroll’s books, the bandersnatch in Glyer’s seems a beast to be defeated, a beast of isolation and stubbornness.
So Glyer traces the steps the Inklings took to conquer this beast. Using letters and journals and other surviving writings she builds a case for active literary collaboration amongst the Inklings. After all, the group was formed expressly for reading aloud from member’s work and receiving collective criticism and praise. In fact, the famous meetings at the Eagle and Child were only tangential to their main gatherings, which were highly exclusive and usually held at one of the members’ houses. Glyer’s focus is on these meetings. It is in them that she sees the collaboration and community that made these men great. At the end of each chapter Glyer gives an aside to guide readers in modeling the Inklings’ formula.
Bandersnatch is certainly Lewis-and-Tolkien-heavy; as they are the most prominent of the Inklings. But Lewis’s brother, Warren, novelist Charles Williams, Tolkien’s son Christopher, Hugo Dyson, and Owen Barfield all feature heavily. This group was not Lewis and Tolkien fan service: the their popularity was spreading, but they had not yet left the mark we know. All members shared work, and Glyer shows how their comments on each other’s pieces drastically shaped the finished work. A snippet gives us a look at what one of these meetings might be like:
“The author reads aloud from a rough draft, handwritten on loose sheets of paper. The reader is interrupted: here, Lewis jumps in and offers a specific suggestion. The author listens, then jots a quick note on the manuscript. The note is brief and somewhat cryptic. It is also completely unattributed.” (83)
Without the prodding of the Inklings we may never have even seen The Lord of the Rings, and their comments on Tolkien’s in-progress manuscript changed the book significantly – we have less hobbit-talk and more adventures, and there’s a final chapter (published in The History of Middle Earth) that Tolkien reluctantly removed at the recommendation of his friends. As for Lewis, his Space Trilogy would have been drastically different, and ‘Til we have Faces would have probably been a rough epic poem. This are only some of the major changes that came as a result of the meetings between the inklings, there are innumerable tweaks and shifts through all of their work.
These meetings had their fair share of contention as well. None of the members shied away from telling their true feelings about others’ work. Tolkien famously disliked The Chronicles of Narnia; and he made this clear in meetings and in correspondence. Neither was he a fan of The Problem of Pain or Letters to Malcolm. Owen Barfield’s harsh critique of Perelandra resulted in extensive rewrites by Lewis.
But this direct editing is only a small part of the kind of collaboration Glyer wants to show amongst the Inklings. Their friendships formed the backbone of what they produced. Many of the characters in their books resembled other members, or even themselves. Ransom, for instance, from Lewis’ Space Trilogy is often compared to Tolkien, to Williams, or to Lewis himself. This, I think, speaks less to some fondness that compels these authors to put their friends into their work, but instead to the way that deep, consistent friendship changes character for the better. The characters that Glyer mentions as bearing likenesses to members of the Inklings, or the authors themselves, like Ransom or Treebeard (whose “Hrumphing” noise was said to resemble Lewis), are ideals in and of themselves: of integrity, or strength, or hope. As friendships grow, positive characteristics are noticed and aspired towards, and these characteristics get written into the most well regarded characters in their books.
There are times that Bandersnatch bears too many remnants from it’s mother-book, The Company They Keep. It often loses any narrative amongst strings of quotes from letters and scribbles from margins of manuscripts. But when Bandersnatch focuses on the relationships between the members – such as when Lewis would take long walks in college with Owen Barfield and others, creating rhyming epics line by line while hopping hedges; or when Glyer recounts the eulogies the members wrote for each other – we, as readers, see what really fueled their collaboration: friendship.
We who aspire to be like the Inklings, to create worlds beyond imagination, can use the pursuit of genuine community in our own lives. There was never anything glamorous about these friendships. They employed consistency, careful criticism, and encouragement to further each other. As they became better people, their writing showed as evidence. Especially in Lewis and Tolkien’s writings, but in the others’ as well, there is a characteristic joy and a kind of wide-eyed wonder. The poems that the Inklings collaborated on share this. Narnia and Middle Earth have nestled themselves into readers hearts in part because of the joy and wonder that comes with stepping into them for the first time. It is here, in the mark they leave upon the imaginations of their readers, that these authors show us that character built through consistent friendship can vanquish a lurking bandersnatch and really, truly, change the world.